Strictly speaking, the domestic cat isn’t a domestic animal. Individually, perhaps; a super-model skinny Siamese in a jeweled collar or any cat lounging like an Ingres odalisque looks and normally acts about as wild and crazy as the attendees at a home and garden show. But the experts tell us that felis domesticus is more properly a commensalist—a volunteer rather than a draftee in humanity’s circle of furred and feathered retainers. And as any true cat person will tell you, that constitutes a large part of their charm.
One of history’s most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.
The cat, being a citizen (dogs, fine creatures that they are, are most often slaves) has an upfront agenda—getting free room and board with major medical thrown in. In return, they will, when they feel like it, do something about the rodents that also chose to live with humans, but fail to repay us with grace, beauty, and a chorus of purrs when the can opener kicks in. And there are plenty of cats (in Texas, we call them barn cats, even if they patrol, like three in my acquaintance, the out buildings of a boutique winery) who feel it best to make the arrangement strictly business. Which means
Now tell me you don’t see it.
that the humans involved must rightly do a once-a-year kitty roundup, live-trapping the help for the sake of shots, worming, and general inspection for need or damage.
But there are situations in between that don’t fit neatly into anyone’s agenda, more’s the pity.
Less than a year ago, a threesome of wild kittens showed up here minus their mother. They were old enough to survive without her, yet really too young to be on their own. Needing neither barn cats nor an ungoverned population of wild cats, I set about the business of winning the hearts and minds involved with regular food, dependable water, and the patience that cat people learn when trying to do a favor for a suspicious commensalist.
I was soon reminded, as you commonly are in such undertakings, of the limits of good will; one kitten, a little grey tom, was promptly killed by a car. The surviving two, baptized Fritz and Frieda Fraidy Cat, hung on, just out of reach, until Fritz came over, turned into a love kitty, and then vanished without a trace a week after his first trip to the vet’s. That left a diminutive, wild-eyed ball of fluff who ran if I so much as glanced at her, hiding until I was inside before coming out to eat. There was no way to hurry the process, but spring was coming; for little girl Frieda, the biological clock was ticking. Frieda needed a trip to the vet before the alarm went off.
Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.
When it did, it was like having to watch a bewildered 13-year-old nymphet being mobbed by a gang of horny bikers. Cats are nothing if not secretive; the number of tom cats who showed up to answer the ultimate call of the wild was astonishing, and the result predictable—non-stop, 24/7 cat fights, a front porch that whiffed like the lion house at the zoo, and finally a half-grown kitten with a swelling mid-section.
Maybe it was hormones, or the realization that a single mom can always use friends. Many weeks pregnant, Frieda finally accepted my good intentions, going almost instantaneously from fraidy cat to clingy cat. It wasn’t ideal, but it would do. As tiny as she was, the litter would probably be a small one, and I could socialize the kittens and find homes for them while arranging for their teenage mom to spend the rest of her days as a bachelor girl.
That last part remains on the table. Just that.
A week ago, I came home from an errand to find Frieda utterly confounded by the miracle of birth. She looked at me with frightened eyes as the second of three kittens tried to fight its way out of her tiny body. Mama cats are generally the best of mothers, knowing what to do from beginning to end; but Frieda clearly knew nothing. I brought her inside, made her comfortable, cut the cords on the second two kittens (the first had apparently been born dead). To no avail. Frieda wanted nothing to do with any of it. Even my emergency purchase of tiny baby bottles and kitten-specific formula accomplished nothing. By the next evening, the kittens were dead.
An especially sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, held an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.
Fear is said to be a gift, and I suppose it is a lot of the time. Fear keeps us out of trouble, keeps us alive, by steering us away from danger.
But it costs a lot too. Like help when we need it, and deliverance from things we just can’t handle—especially, things we can’t handle alone.